By JUDE P. DOUGHERTY
Scruton, Roger. On Human Nature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2017; 151 pp. Cloth, $22.95.
This book consists of three lectures that Roger Scruton gave as the Charles E. Test Memorial Lectures under the auspices of the James Madison Program at Princeton University in the fall of 2013. They follow his previously published The Soul of The World and draw upon and develop arguments first presented there. A fourth essay is added to the three lectures under the title “Sacred Obligations.”
The first lecture provides a profile of man as an animal, a description of the features that man has in common with other members of the animal kingdom. But wait; there is something about man that is unique to his species, something that cannot be accounted for in purely materialistic terms. Scruton calls this “man’s metaphysical dimension,” something that implies a nonmaterial component, but one that he does not examine in detail.
His target is Richard Dawkins and others who reduce man in purely mechanistic terms to nothing more than a self-replicating animal. In this context, Scruton enlists the aid of a number of his contemporaries as he defends his position, first against the Darwinians, and then against the thesis of Dawkins as presented in the latter’s The Selfish Gene. In arguing against Dawkins’ claim that natural selection can account for all the difficult facts presented by speech and human culture, Scruton finds some support for his analysis in the work of Noam Chomsky.
Scruton is particularly incensed by Dawkins’ attempt to explain goals and rational choices, including morality, in terms of genetic materials. “Morality,” Dawkins will say, “has no other demonstrable ultimate purpose than to keep human genetic material intact.”
To that, Scruton replies, “Human nature, once something to live up too, becomes something to live down to. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’ which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind and with it our kindness.”
Chapter 2 is devoted to a discussion of human relationships. “We are the kind of thing,” Scruton says, “that relates to members of our kind through interpersonal attitudes and through the self-predication of our own mental states.” The kind of thing that we are cannot be characterized merely in biological terms. Ever since Kant, it has been clear that I thoughts are fundamental to the life of the person. The moral life depends on something that may be called the “second person standpoint” — the standpoint of someone whose reasons and conduct are essentially addressed to others.
When I give another person my reason for action, I am assuming for myself the authority and competence to do that, and in so doing I also confer standing and competence on the other. By speaking in the first person singular, I can make statements about myself, answer questions, and engage in reasoning that bypasses the usual ways and normal methods of discovery.
I am not merely an individual in the way that Fido is a dog. I identify myself as an individual across time. I take responsibility for my past and make promises for the future.
Chapter 3 is devoted to a discussion of the moral life. Persons are moral beings, conscious of right and wrong. Any account of the moral life, Scruton suggests, must begin from the apparent tension that exists between our nature as free individuals and our membership in the communities on which our fulfillment depends. In speaking of the person, Scruton draws upon Boethius and Aquinas, but he is principally indebted to Kant.
The final chapter consists of random thoughts on what Scruton calls “sacred obligations.” The Roman sense of piety is certainly the first. Piety arises from the ontological predicament of the individual who comes into the world with debts to pay. Filial obligations and social obligations follow. The rituals of birth, marriage, and death call attention to those important features of human life. Moral thinking, Scruton finds, inculcates habits of respect and benevolence and guarantees general safety.
In his discussion of sexual morality, he calls attention to Aurel Kolnai’s defense of the Roman Catholic view of chastity, priesthood, and marriage.
In his extended critique of academic political philosophy, Scruton finds that it has its root in the Enlightenment’s conception of citizenship, an attitude that emerged with the social contract and the desire to replace inherited authority with popular choice as the principle of political legitimacy.
Much of what Scruton has to say has been said before in simpler terms, but that does not detract from the value of his critique of reductionist biology. Scruton’s literary erudition and charm grace his presentation throughout.
If the volume has any flaw it may be that Scruton takes too seriously the sophistry of many of his contemporaries and addresses positions that any man of common sense would throw out of court.